China Silk Road Adventure

I have always had a fascination with Marco Polo and the Silk Road. The ultimate traveler, he set out into the unknown and traveled across a huge expanse of diverse cultures and languages.  In 2015 Linda and I flew to Istanbul and from there traveled to Bulgaria.  The Mediterranean and it's connecting waterways  were the western terminus of the Silk Road and is rich with it’s history spanning over 2,000 years. When we traveled to Tibet, Linda and I decided we should venture to the eastern terminus of the Silk Road and  investigate the route from Xi’an, China to the Pakistan border.

Our journey started in Xi’an, an ancient city in China with a history dating back almost 6,000 years. It was in Xi’an where over 2,500 years ago silk, spices, iron and other commodities started their journey West across the Eurasian land mass to the Persian and European markets. In exchange for these China would receive carpets, produce, horses, wine and such. Over time the Chinese learned to grow their own exotic produce, make carpets and wine, breed horses and produce the other goods they had been importing. Ultimately the major trade goods that made their way to China became gold, silver, precious jewels and glass.  Xi'an is most notably know for the Terra-cotta warriors constructed by China's first Emperor Qin Shi Huang, who incidentally was responsible for starting the construction of the Great Wall of China as we know it today in 221 BCE.

Turpan almost 1,500 miles west of Xi'an was our next stop. Western China has a large Muslim population with heavy Islamic influence.  No longer did it have the feel of "traditional" China. Turpan is an oasis in the Turpan Depression and at 505 feet below sea level, the second lowest depression on earth. Archeological finds show it was inhabited as long ago as 6,000 years by people migrating from the West. The dry climate of the area preserved trading settlements that thrived thousands of years ago. It was in Turpan that Linda and I started to feel and imagine what it must have been like to be traders moving our goods along the Silk Road 2,000 years ago. Turpan was a central trading outpost where goods flowed through from the north (Mongolia), south (Tibet and India) and the east (China, Southeast Asia) and started their journey westward. Turpan was the base to explore the well preserved 2,500 year old ruins of Jiahoe, Bezeklik, Tuyuk and Gaochang.

At the most westerly reaches of China lies the city of Kashgar. Located in the Chinese province of Xinjiang it is one of the most exotic destinations I have ever traveled to. The population is comprised mainly of Uyghur’s, more middle Eastern than Chinese and for the most part Muslim. There was little there that even remotely reminded you that you were still in China. We planned our arrival for Sunday morning to take in Kashgars Sunday Bazar. The Bazar is the largest market in Central Asia with literally thousands of stalls selling every type of merchandise imaginable. The ancient city of Kashgar is quickly disappearing under the Chinese governments modernization program. The earthen city that was the trading hub for the Silk Road for thousands of years is being bulldozed under blocks at a time after the Chinese deemed it to be unsafe after the 2008 earthquake. It is also an attempt by the Chinese to cleanse their country of the Uyghur people and the religion of Islam. Security is high in China. Yet nowhere was it more evident than in the Xinjiang province with Kashgar being the highest. There is not a square meter of the city that is not under security camera surveillance. To enter markets, stores, historical sites, board trains, subways or to even cross streets at times you needed to be prepared to show your ID, pass through metal detectors and have your bags scanned much the same as if you are going through airport security. Taxi’s and hired cars have dash cameras focused not on the street but on the drivers and the passengers. Anything sharp or thought that could be used as a weapon was confiscated. Facial recognition was regularly used. Every town or city we entered we needed to register with police upon arrival. (We also needed to do this throughout Tibet) Did we ever feel threatened? No, not at all. We actually felt quite secure knowing we would not be victims of random acts of violence. Once you got used to the routine and knew what to expect it went quite smooth and quick. After a while it was not ever an inconvenience, just another part of getting through the day.

The Sunday Livestock market in Kashgar is a centuries old tradition where farmers and livestock growers from the surrounding area come to sell and trade livestock.  The action never stops as animals are unloaded from trucks, lined up for sale or being groomed for better presentation.  The crowds are animated when inspecting the livestock but when it comes time to discuss price, it all becomes very subdued and quiet as the transactions take place with very subtle finger motions hidden in a handshake. 

Our goal was to follow the route of the ancient Silk Road as far West as possible from its origins in Xian.  In Kashgar we hired a private car with driver and guide to travel the final leg being the Karakoram Highway to Pakistan. Being foreigners we were not allowed to do it by public transport and were required to have a guide to take us through the many police and military checkpoints along the road. The Karakoram Highway follows the Southern Silk Road route out of Kashgar. It is the highest highway on earth and took almost 20 years to complete its 810 miles connecting the Punjab in Pakistan to Kashgar in China. The Karakoram Highway has the distinction of being known as the Deadliest Road on Earth. In the past that was in large part to the ruthless bandits who preyed on the caravans as they moved their way up and over the Karakoram Mountains. Today it retains that distinction due to the dangerous narrow curves carved out of the cliffs and the unpredictability of frequent landslides. Several times we diverted from the pavement onto roughly bulldozed slide debris where crews were busily repairing recent slide damage. Not having VISA’s to enter Pakistan our travel permits only allowed us to travel as far as Tashkurgan, the last town in China 52 miles from the Pakistan border. A little disappointing yet the spectacular scenery and the remoteness of the Karakoram Mountains made the trip all worthwhile.

Flying to Beijing was an abrupt culture shock.  The flight seemed as if it was a time machine.  In the morning we were experiencing the rural, almost medieval  environment of Western China and in the evening we were thrust into one of the most populated cities in the world.  While there Linda and I scheduled  in a few days to enjoy some of the city. 

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